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Remembering Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Fr. Steven Kostoff

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Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday at his home near Moscow. He was eighty-nine. He was arguably the most important writer of the twentieth century writing with the intensity and daring of a prophet in opposition to the Soviet Union's totalitarian regime. Solzhenitsyn exposed the Soviet Union's hidden slave labor camps. The Gulag Archipelago, a massive three-volume work, is an unrivaled denunciation of the Soviet Union's repression of political dissent.

Solzhenitsyn saw his work as the "living memory" of Gulags' victims. Soviet authorities branding him a "traitor" and expelled him in 1974. He settled in Vermont where he continued a trilogy of the Russian Revolution. His earlier novels, of high literary merit, include One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. His acceptance speech was a stirring description of the writer's deep commitment to truth. He laid the intellectual and moral foundation for the triumvirate of Pope Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to "bring down" the Soviet regime in the late 20th century. But he was the one who knew this from the inside, as a victim of this regime, and he paid the highest price.

He was an uneasy guest in America, denouncing "vulgar materialism"and the cowardice of the West notably in the "Harvard Address" in 1978. The Western press turned on him and ignored from that time onward labelling him a "monarchist" and "political reactiionary." President Ford on the advice of Henry Kissinger refused to meet with Solzhenitsyn even though the writer was the most effective critic of the Soviet Union.

He returned to his beloved Russia in 1994 but his influence slowly waned. He seemed out of touch with a younger generation that sought to forget the Communist past. His legacy may suffer because of that. However, Solzhenitsyn is still mentioned together with such great literary giants as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Akhmatova and Pasternak. They all understood their role as writers to be a sacred vocation dedicated to serving and revealing the truth through the gift of the written word. His flaws of an ideological, literary or personal dimension are insignificant in relation to this unique vocation and its fulfiment in his long-suffering struggles against a relentless authoritarianism.

Solzhenitsyn was a believing Orthodox Christian, and while in Vermont, his spiritual director was Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983), the former dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. Fr. Schmemann admired him greatly, but they clearly had their disagreements as recorded in Fr. Alexander's published journals.

Solzhenistsyn was a lone, single voice - "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" - standing up to a murderous regime with courage and resolve. He faced pressures most men would find unendurable including death threats from the KGB. Only his noteriety in the West saved him from disappearing again (he had earlier served an eight year prison sentence for mildly criticizing Stalin in a letter).

Solzhenitsyn's life inspires courage. People long for truth and listen when it is boldly spoken by someone who is willing to suffer for that truth. He denounced the suppression of freedom and truth and battled valiantly against the ideologies that dehumanized human beings created "in the image and likeness of God." Memory Eternal!

Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.

Posted: 29-Aug-2008

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